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An Automated Traffic Cop Is No Arbiter of Justice

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 6, 2005; Page G02

The line came near the bottom of President George W. Bush's 2005 State of the Union address:

"In America, we must make doubly certain that no person is held to account for a crime that he or she did not commit. . . . "

Those words meant more to me than anything the president had to say about freedom or Social Security. Without justice, there is neither, which brings up the point of this week's column.

Bush's address was delivered on the day I opened a letter from LDC Collection Systems, an agency that goes after people who have been found guilty of and fined for various traffic violations in the District of Columbia. In the case of the District's Automated Traffic Enforcement system, which monitors alleged red-light running via automated cameras, those people include vehicle owners who have committed no offense at all.

I was cited for running a red light in my 2000-model Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck at 3:14 p.m. on Aug. 17, 2004 -- at the precise time, on the Pacific clock, I was driving a pre-production 2005 Nissan Pathfinder SUV on Seattle's Bainbridge Island more than 3,000 miles away.

I had witnesses to my Seattle whereabouts, including a group of Nissan executives, my driving partner for that day and a number of journalists from around the country. I also had travel and hotel documents, easily checkable telephone numbers and private journal entries detailing my exact location at the time of the alleged violation. I sent copies of all of those names, numbers and other supporting materials to the Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE) people, thinking that reason would prevail.

Instead, I received another letter from ATE demanding that I give them the name of the person who was driving my pickup at the exact time of the alleged red-light violation. How could I possibly do that? I had not been home for a month. Neither had my wife, Mary Anne, nor any other family member who was physically capable of operating the truck.

As we had done every summer since 1999, while I was away on assignment or when Mary Anne was in New York with our daughters on one of her "mother-daughter sabbaticals," we'd left the Chevy S-10 key with workmen who were doing exterior work on our house. We know their names, of course. We obviously trust them. But I could not swear I knew exactly who was driving the truck at the precise time of the alleged violation.

And inasmuch as the driver, who most probably was one of our itinerant handymen, probably had no idea that he was being charged with an infraction -- there was no police arrest -- he probably did not know, either. Still, I provided ATE with the names of several people who had access to the truck at that time -- pointing out that there was no way I legally or ethically could swear that any one of those people was the culprit.

ATE responded by increasing my penalty from the original $75 to $150 -- and by saying that my protests were too little too late, although I had written the agency three times earlier saying that it was in error. I again protested in writing. ATE responded by turning its claim over to the collections agency, LDC, which expressed absolutely no interest in justice or, for that matter, traffic safety. LDC simply wanted the $150.

"This is an attempt to collect money owed to the District of Columbia," the LDC notice said in part. "We intend to report this delinquent account to a national credit reporting company unless you respond immediately."

In other words, pay up and shut up. There was no mention of the carnage annually caused by people who deliberately or carelessly run red lights. There was no discussion of anything in the LDC letter except potential harm to my credit rating.

This all baffled me. I called Kevin Morrison, director of communications for the Metropolitan Police Department. Morrison was succinct: "The D.C. law is very clear," he said. "The D.C. law holds the registered owner of the vehicle liable for the citation, the same as it would if the vehicle were issued a parking ticket."

Q. Even if the owner was thousands of miles away at the time of the alleged violation?

Morrison: Yes, unless the owner files an affidavit giving the name of the person who actually was driving at the time the vehicle was photographed.

Q. But what if the owner does not know who was behind the wheel at that time? What if the owner provides the names of the people who had access to the vehicle?

Morrison: That's not good enough.


Morrison offered a few other bits of information. Because the D.C. Council was concerned about violating individual privacy rights, the red-light cameras in the District photograph only the rear of the suspect vehicle. That means, he said, there are no photographs of the person behind the wheel, or anyone else in the car.

Morrison and other traffic safety advocates, many of whom support red-light cameras, are fond of talking about how the controversial devices have reduced dangerous driving. For example, in August 1999, when red-light cameras were installed at New York Avenue and Fourth Street NW, there were 7,600 incidents of red-light running at that intersection, Morrison said. Last December there were 1,600 incidents, he said.

There is a big "duh" factor to their thinking. Yes, the red-light cameras reduce red-light running in places where drivers know the cameras are mounted. How many people break the law in front of uniformed police officers? Give me a break!

Okay, I have sent off my check for $150 in order to put this matter to rest and to be able to discuss it in print. But I've left with many salient questions. For instance, how do you reduce crime by punishing people who never committed one? How does citing an innocent vehicle owner stop the next intentional, law-be-damned red-light runner? And isn't it at least a bit paradoxical that the District government's concern for privacy removed the one way I could have extricated myself from being punished for something I didn't do?

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